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 June 17, 1972

It was a typical June evening in Washington, D.C.—warm and sticky.

As most D.C. residents were coming home from a day’s work, Frank Wills was getting ready to start his. The twenty-four-year-old African American night watchman was scheduled for his usual graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., at the Watergate Office Building.

For the past year, the six-foot-tall lanky South Carolinian had lived on the third floor of a boarding house in DuPont Circle, located in the heart of the capital and less than a mile away from the White House. Wills’s one-room apartment—which he nicknamed “the bird cage” because of its minuscule size—had a bed barely long enough to sleep in, a small color television, and no bathroom. He shared a bathroom with eight other tenants on the floor. His weekly rent was $14.

Able to sleep for only five hours following his shift from the previous night, he passed the remaining time before his next shift playing with his cat, Tuffy, watching television, and listening to a police scanner in the background on a short-wave radio. At the dinner hour, Wills, who had spent some time in Detroit but was still far more comfortable in the backwoods of South Carolina than in a big city, rode the bus across the nation’s capital. He ate by himself at the Southern Dining Room, a popular restaurant among blacks who migrated from the South. Treating himself to what was the closest thing to a home-cooked meal, he had steak, rice, gravy, salad, and for dessert, peach pie. The tab was $1.75. Afterward, he wandered the streets, window shopping, something he did often while waiting for his midnight shift to start, , according to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who interviewed him after the scandal broke.

Wills was a loner. He lived by himself, ate by himself, spent his leisure time by himself. Even his job involved minimal social interaction.

When Wills returned to his room, it was time to get ready for work. He took a shower, the second of the day, a ritual he practiced regularly. He got dressed in his company-issued uniform: blue button-down shirt, blue slacks, blue jacket, and a can of Mace.Having arrived in D.C. from Detroit more than a year earlier, Wills was able to secure employment immediately when General Security Services (GSS) hired him. Given his prior experience as a department store security guard in Detroit, GSS placed him in the Security Force division. Despite the steady employment and his promotion to rank of corporal, Wills felt he “wasn’t going anywhere” with his current job. Paid a $80 a week (slightly more than minimum wage), the young watchman, on his twenty-minute walk to workthat evening, contemplated “getting a better job and making some money.”

For the previous six weeks, Wills had been assigned to protect the Watergate Office Building,an eleven-story office tower located at 2600 Virginia Avenue NW. Due to its central location, building management often leased its space to government agencies (e.g., the Federal Reserve) and political organizations such as the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which rented offices to serve as its headquarters.

Never armed with a gun, Wills had minimal defense to protect himself against an intruder. His daily duties were to check every door, hallway, parking garage, and potential entry points of the office building to ensure it was locked and secured. If there were any suspicious activities observed, he was required to contact his supervisor or, if needed, the police.  

That evening, Frank Wills arrived ten minutes early to his midnight shift. The guard he was relieving, Fletcher Pittman,told him he would be on his own. The other guard, LeRoy Brown, who was supposed to work alongside Wills, had left his shift earlier because he was not feeling well. Wills signed in on the employee log andcalled the GSS answering service to report that he was on duty.

Normally, activity at an office building like this one wound down by the dinner hour. Recently, though, the building had a steady flow of young, ambitious workers who were coming and leaving from the sixth floor DNC offices. With less than five months until Election Day, the DNC was in full swing, with its staff not allowing a single minute to be wasted. The Democratic National Convention in Miami was scheduled to take place in three weeks, and guards had recently reported that “party workers often labored into the morning hours,” making final preparations. But on that night, the Watergate was eerily silent.

***

Beginning in the building’s basement, Wills set out for his first round of patrol.

The basement was comprised of three levels, each serving as an access point to the underground parking garage. Taking the elevator to the second level, known as B-2, Wills exited and encountered the first of three doors that led to the parking garage.

It was locked.

Check.

He checked the second door.

It was unlocked.

Caught by surprise, he scrutinized the latch to see why it was not locking.

Wills discovered a piece of grey gaffer tapeaffixed to the latch. He had encountered it before. To save time when going back and forth with heavy equipment, building janitors occasionally would cover a door latch to avoid having to stop and pull out a key when re-entering the building. Even office workers—including those from the DNC—would use this same technique.

Wills removed the tape.

But once the tape was removed, Wills noticed that the latch was full of cotton and paper. That wasn’t normal, but he pulled it out and moved onto the next and final door on the second floor.

It too was unlocked, and he found that the latch was taped and stuffed with cotton and paper. Wills cleared the latch and secured the door. The second floor was clear.

He walked down a flight of stairs to check the basement’s third floor (B-3). As was the case with the previous floor, the first door was secure, but the next two doors were not locked. One had tape and paper inside the latch, while the other just simply had not been secured.

Wills headed to the first floor (B-1) and found all of the doors were secured. When he returned to his post in the main lobby, he wrote in the security log at 12:20 a.m., “B-2 level stuff with paper. Both doors. Also, one Door on B-3 level was open, the other was stuff with paper.”

Concerned about what he observed, Wills phoned his boss, Captain Bobby Jackson. Jackson, the “roving supervisor” that evening,was making his own rounds at a GSS-guarded facility ten miles away in Takoma Park, Maryland, andwas not picking up. Wills left a voicemail at the company’s answering service. Rather than wait for Jackson to respond, the young night watchman called Jackson’s superior, Major Ira O’Neal.

A recently retired veteran of the U.S. Air Force, O’Neal supervised fifty-one GSS security guards, including those who worked at the Watergate. When Wills called, O’Neal was off-duty and sleeping at his home. Awakened by Wills’s call, he spoke with the guard and, from what he gathered, assumed the situation was not as dire as Wills presented it to be. O’Neal was aware that office workers had “used this technique to avoid walking around the block to the main entrance of the building.” Major O’Neal instructed Wills to continue checking all of the doors of the remaining eleven floors as he normally would. Once completed, O’Neal ordered, Wills was to report back. The tape was likely a fluke.

As Wills was in the process of continuing his patrol, Bruce Givner, a twenty-one-year-old DNC intern, entered the main lobby from the stairwell. An incoming senior at UCLA, Givner was the last worker—or rather volunteer, because he wasn’t paid—to leave the DNC offices that evening. While his fellow interns and supervisor called it quits at 9 p.m., Givner had stayed back, taking advantage of the free long-distance phone service to call friends in his hometown in Ohio.

When Wills saw Givner, he asked him to sign out from the visitors’ log. Givner declined since he hadn’t signed in that day. For whatever reason, perhaps out of laziness, Wills didn’t press the matter.  

After small talk, Givner asked Wills if he’d care to join him; he was planning to place a take-out order across the street at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge & Restaurant. Known for its slogan, “Someone you know, wherever you go,” the motel chain featured a quaint twenty-four-hour coffee shop.

Only thirty minutes into his shift, Wills’s concern with the unlocked doors stuffed with paper and cotton conveniently subsided. The night watchman took his first break of the evening, turned off the lights in the building’s main lobby, and walked across the street with Givner.

Even though they were close in age, worked at the same facility, and were new to the Watergate (Givner started interning on June 12), these two young men had little in common. Givner, who was white, was on his way to a successful legal career in sunny Southern California, while Wills, who hadn’t even finished high school, was on a track working blue–collar-level jobs. For all intents and purposes, their paths should never have crossed, but on June 17, they did.

Both men ordered the same meal: a cheeseburger, a milkshake, and French fries. Waiting for their orders, they chatted. Once the food was ready, Givner left on his motorcycle. Wills returned to work. 

While he had been away, Captain Jackson, his immediate supervisor, called and left a message for Wills to complete his rounds and then call him back. When Wills got back to the Watergate, he sat down at the guard’s desk and enjoyed his meal; his rounds, including calling back his boss, were put on hold.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., nearly an hour after he stepped away to buy food, Wills returned to work. Instead of checking the upstairs offices, as Jackson requested, Wills went to the basement. He took the elevator to B-2, where he originally began his shift. Upon entry, Wills did what he always did: he checked the door.

It was at that moment that Wills knew he was not alone in the building. The tape had been reapplied. With a can of Mace and, if need be, his bare fists as his only protection, Wills was not adequately equipped (or trained) to confront an intruder, especially an armed one. 

He returned to the main lobby, where he encountered Walter Hellams, a Federal Reserve Board guard in charge of protecting the agency’s eighth floor office suite. Wills updated Hellams about the situation. Hellams instructed Wills to call the police. Wills was reluctant. Fearful of being punished or, worse, losing his job, for not following up with his bosses sooner, Wills tried to circumvent the situation by contacting Fletcher Pittman, the guard he had replaced from the previous shift. Maybe there was a logical explanation.

When Pittman picked up the phone, Wills asked if he had found any locks taped open during his watch. Pittman replied in the negative. Wills knew he was in trouble. Having no choice, he called his supervisor, Captain Jackson.

“The B-2 level door had been retaped,” Wills reported.

Call the police, Jackson ordered.   

The night watchman complied.

At approximately 1:47 a.m., Wills updated the security log: “Call police found tape on doore [sic].”

In that moment, Frank Wills’s life changed forever. And so would the nation’s.

***

If you enjoyed the introduction of Watergate’s Forgotten Hero: Frank Wills, Night Watchman, follow my progress by subscribing to my quarterly newsletter.

 

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